Yet Another Router Setup Hassle

April 24th, 2012

Some time back, I read an article suggesting that Wi-Fi routers are the products most often returned to dealers. The biggest reason is evidently that they are difficult to configure, and thus do not deliver the performance customers expect.

The main problem appears to be inadequate documentation, followed by confusing setup apps or Web-based control panels. This despite the fact that a router’s basic setup routine ought to be fairly straightforward: Plug it in, connect your Internet adapter (or cable modem) to the appropriate port, connect additional Ethernet cables if needed for a wired network, turn the thing on, run a setup app and give the router a unique network name and password. The rest of the installation process, such as verifying your connection and making sure a high level of security has been established, ought to be accomplished behind the scenes.

Only it doesn’t always work that way. Far too many routers configure a default name provided by the router maker (such as Linksys or Netgear), and a password that anyone can guess in 30 seconds. Worse, they fail to configure the stronger levels of security, such as WPA2 Personal for home users, which unfortunately allows so-called “war drivers” to pass through your neighborhood, steal your Internet bandwidth. or may even try to break into your computers and steal your personal data.

The Linksys division of Cisco, a worldwide networking powerhouse known for Linksys home routers, is making a positive effort to help you set up one of their routers, using the Cisco Connect app for the Mac and Windows, but there are still serious and confusing flaws.

On the positive side of the ledger, Cisco Connect will pick a default friendly network name and a strong password for your new router. You can change the settings, if you like, but feel assured that the level of security is appropriate, including the selection of WPA2 Personal for encryption. All well and good, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hit a serious roadblock during the first part of the setup process.

The key problem is that the app is too dumb to work with a wired network connection. On the Mac version, it insists on turning on Wi-Fi, if it’s not being used, and then warning you that you have two networks activated, and you must deactivate one of them. The best workaround is just to unplug your Ethernet cable, and do the setup wirelessly, but, of course, the setup assistant in Cisco Connect doesn’t alert you in advance of the curious setup scheme. Since you can configure an Apple AirPort Wi-Fi without having to disconnect anything, why Cisco can’t figure out how to do the very same thing? It’s not that they aren’t aware of the problem, since their support people will alert you of the need to set up their routers — and even their router extenders, which expand the wireless range — strictly on a Wi-Fi connection with no other active network connection.

To make matters all the more confusing, the Linksys routers I’ve used, even the $199.99 Linksys EA4500, their newest high-end model, come with no printed documentation beyond inserting the setup CD and launching Cisco Connect. Accessing documentation on that CD will merely connect you to the company’s site for the current version. How you’re supposed to do that if you are using the router to configure that Internet connection is anyone’s guess. Talk about a cart before the horse syndrome.

Another curiosity, but one that only impacts power users, is the flawed method of displaying a Status screen on the router’s Web-based setup panel. As with many of you, I do not use my ISP’s DNS servers. Instead, I use OpenDNS, which promises greater speed, superior reliability, and enhanced protection against phishing and known malware sites.

Setting up OpenDNS is really simple with a router. You just enter the two OpenDNS IP numbers as Static DNS addresses. This is accomplished in the Cisco Setup page of their browser panel, available directly or as an Advanced router option in Cisco Connect. Click Save Settings, and it’s activated, except that the panel’s Status screen never shows the altered DNS setup. It only lists the IP numbers for the DNS servers used by your ISP. When I asked Linksys support about this anomaly, which curiously only appeared on recent Linksys routers, they claimed that was the way it was designed.

So, therefore, that means that a Setup page that gives you the wrong information is, to their bizarre logic, the proper method.

This isn’t to say that Apple’s AirPort setups are necessarily perfect. The new AirPort Utility 6.0 software no longer gives you the option to turn on support for IPv6, which is the expanded Internet numbering system that is soon going into effect to replace IPv4, because existing IP addreses have just about run out.

With ISPs and network hardware makers increasingly adding IPv6 support, it seems strange that there’s no way to activate that feature on AirPort router unless you downgrade to an older version of AirPort Utility. Recent AirPort hardware definitely supports IPv6.

I suppose it’s possible Apple removed support in the AirPort app  just to avoid confusion, and will restore it in a future update, when migrating to IPv6 becomes necessary. But all that does is muddy the waters. Perhaps Apple felt that they’d be inundated by people who switched on IPv6 prematurely, only to find that their routers stopped working. One hopes they’ll do the right thing. But the Linksys setup app shortcomings, at least of for now, seem far more serious.

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2 Responses to “Yet Another Router Setup Hassle”

  1. dfs says:

    Yeah, setting up wireless gear can be easy or problematic, depending on whose products you’re using. Setting up my Brother printer, for example, was a bear of a job, and there too a large part of the problem was bad documentation and the fact that too much needed to be done manually that should have been happening automatically behind the scenes. But I wonder if the problem goes deeper: how much do these third party companies bother to team up with Apple to get things working smoothly, and how much is Apple willing to cooperate with them? I have no idea, for example, whether Apple allows third parties access to its Bonjour technology. “It Just Works” is a slogan that shouldn’t just apply to Apple products, it should describe how everything works on the Apple platform.

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